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Interview: Fr Dominic White OP, conventual bursar

27 March 2020

‘It’s very corrosive to be constantly rated in every detail of your life’

The title means I’m the administrator. I look after the money and the buildings of Blackfriars, the Dominican priory in Cambridge. It wouldn’t be congenial if it took up all my time, but I’m organised, and I work well with the Prior, who’s also good on buildings. I’m also a research associate at the Margaret Beaufort Institute of Theology.

I’ve no idea how long I’ll stay: as Dominicans, we get moved around. We’re primarily a preaching Order, and we need to be able to respond to people’s questions now. Our pilgrimage as Christians is in this world, in this increasingly secularising society; so preaching requires study, and prayerful contemplation of our study. Our preaching and pastoral work feeds back into study and keeps it relevant. We’re active contemplatives, if you like.

Our house is built out of two family homes joined together, and quite a large congregation come here to four masses on Sundays. I do quite a bit of spiritual direction, and I look for ways to get involved with people. I’m part of a reading group in the theology department, and we’re looking at how we can help with poverty in Cambridge. Although it’s a boom town, some salaried people are dependent on foodbanks, and there are at least two soup-runs here already. It’s a scandal.

My first experience of God came through hearing “O God, our help in ages past” on the radio during a storm — aged about three. (I was blessed to grow up in a believing Roman Catholic family in Guildford.) It’s developed through integrating my sense of the presence of God in nature and the cosmos with Christian faith, which has given me a fuller understanding of this presence.

I’m currently writing a book for SCM: How Do I Look? Theology in the age of the selfie. It’s about whether being Christian changes how we look at others and how they feel seen. The idea of the theotic gaze draws on the idea of theosis — divinisation (2 Peter 1.4). Sharing in the divinity of Christ by God’s grace, adopted as Jesus’s brothers and sisters, we can receive the grace to gaze on others as he did, and reveal their beauty, their glory. It’s seeing and knowing together, and the reciprocity of communion. In Orthodox theology, the icon looks at us, and it’s a transformative gaze.

Everyone does selfies because everyone else is doing it. Isn’t that why we all do things? But people have become obsessed by self-image. I remember so many more people’s birthdays thanks to Facebook, and it gives everyone the chance to write their autobiography.

As a chaplain, I realised our students could give the impression that they had lots of friends, but the reality was often very different. It’s very corrosive to have to match up to your image and to be constantly rated in every detail of your life. I don’t want to be a Jeremiah, and I see the value of social media to connect people, but how can we speak into that now? People have always compared themselves with others, and we really need to be taught by divine grace what it means to be made in the image and likeness of God.

The bigger question is about how we learn to be a respected minority, as Jews and Muslims have been for their culture. One thing that sociologists really thought extraordinary was the sense of community in the churches in Newcastle.

In a hypersexualised age, chastity can be a preaching of seeing the person. Yes, a lot of bad things were said and done in the search for chastity in the Church; but in an age when sleeping with anyone can be just part of a night, with no emotional commitment at all, sometimes we’re called to put something aside to which many people have become addicted. Celibate chastity can offer another gaze — can find another attractiveness which is other than sexual.

The Lost Knowledge of Christ was about the spiritual cosmology of the early Church, abandoned at the Renaissance. I wanted to give Christians back something which I believe we’ve lost, and empower Christians to share their faith with people who identify as spiritual but not religious, and find their spirituality in nature or the cosmic. Some people get it; some don’t. Some project their own ideas on to it; others respond with insights which have enriched my understanding of the topic. It’s one spirituality among many, but I pray that those who need it will receive it.

It’s especially relevant to liturgical celebrations. We have problems with liturgy in the Church — endless squabbles over styles — but we don’t really know what we’re doing, or the importance of it; so liturgy can be stripped down and boring. Think of the cosmic dimensions of the Easter liturgy: fire, water, re-creation of a new time, the cosmic dimension of the Cross, Wisdom the harmoniser.

The choir was a dancing choir in the ancient world; so the liturgy and its singing processions, led by the incense-bearer, Wisdom, was understood as choreography. If we had a greater awareness of all knowledge coming to us through the senses, we’d become so much more aware of the enchanted cosmos that we inhabit — not just talking about it, but experiencing it.

A strong tradition of the liturgy, especially in the Christian East, has identified Mary with Wisdom in the Old Testament. Overshadowed by the Holy Spirit, who is often seen as God’s feminine side — as in Genesis 1.26-27 — Mary images the Holy Spirit for us. Many Christians instinctively see Mary as mother. Others find the divine feminine in the Holy Spirit. Many of the Holy Spirit’s titles, like “advocate”, are applied to Mary, too.

Taking final vows in the Dominican Order — and sticking to that commitment — is the bravest thing I’ve ever done.

I’m a pianist, organist, and composer. I’ve written a four-part setting for Ascension Day, and I’ve just written a setting for the BCP evensong. I love choral evensong — it’s one of the joys of living in Cambridge.

I’m writing an earth litany for the healing of the earth. People may think that’s very New Age-y, but every verse is taken from the Bible. I’ve written a simple chant for it, and soon I’m taking it to Sweden for some students to try out. (I’m sorry to say I’m flying to Copenhagen and then taking a train across the bay — don’t tell Greta — because it was too expensive to sail there.)

Greta is a real prophet for our time, and I’m very interested to see how she has influenced students and how they live. I’m fascinated by what she says, and seeking a Christian response, to see how it will change us, to pray and sing these verses. Any congregation who wants to sing it can get in touch with me.

I’d like to carry on writing books and music, and accompanying people. I have a sense that God wants to give me something new, but I don’t know what it is yet.

Music and art films make me happy; nature; the company of good friends.

I love church bells. I heard the King’s bells when I was a student at Pembroke, 28 years ago, and as a novice in Blackfriars in 2000, and now, as I finish work at the library. The undertone which continues is a signal of our mortality, the finality of time, and the passage of time to eternity.

Christ and his saints, those gone before us, and the “saints next door”, among whom I count some of my friends, give me hope for the future, where they are working among all people of good will. The recent cross-party collaboration in Parliament is a very good sign. More, please.

I pray for strength, for inspiration, for others, for peace in the world.

If I found myself locked in a church with someone, I’d choose a dear friend, or St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, also known as Edith Stein. I’m very fond of her, and she was lot more fun than she appears in those Prussian portrait photos. Her thought and life were totally one thing, for which she paid the ultimate price. She wrote her doctoral thesis on empathy while she was nursing soldiers in the First World War. She could have escaped the gas chambers because the prioress offered to move her to Latin America. Her last recorded words were to her sister, as she took her hand and said, “Come, Rosa, we’re going for our people.” She reminds me that I also must work for the people who are training me as a priest.

Dominic White was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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